When Joe Biden officially stopped considering a run for the White House in a heartfelt Rose Garden speech on Wednesday afternoon, it made some—OK, me—wonder: Did the vice president ever really intend to run, or was he really just looking for a big shot of love from the American public all along?
When the non-campaign kicked off with a New York Times column on August 1, everybody knew Biden had little chance to be the Democratic presidential candidate in 2016. He didn’t have much on Hillary Clinton besides a penis. He was an insider, had voted for the Iraq war, was proud of his association with the 1994 crime bill, and so on. But the kid—the 72-year-old kid with plugs—had heart. And if you didn't know that already, you were about to find out. Someone had anonymously leaked a story to the Times’s Maureen Dowd that Biden's son Beau’s dying wish last spring was for his father to run for president. “He tried to make his father promise to run, arguing that the White House should not revert to the Clintons and that the country would be better off with Biden values,” Dowd wrote.
Biden had long been seen as the wacky Uncle of the Obama administration, but the dying-wish storyline cast his potential presidential bid as a kind of moral calling. It turned out, of course, that Biden himself was the leaker, though we wouldn’t find out till a couple months later. It was a bit of political sneakiness you would expect from the Clintons, if the Clintons could figure out how to win over The New York Times.
And so a flood of commentary about Biden’s authenticity washed across America's Facebook feeds. A small sample, from Mike Barnicle at The Daily Beast, under the headline “Authentic Biden Vs. Hillary’s Mystery”:
He is, perhaps, the least complicated man in public life. It’s all right there, on display, for anyone and everyone to hear and see, to criticize or applaud. There is no filter, sometimes to his detriment. There is never any pretense.
There were many others in this vein. We were showered with opinion columns about how Biden is the real, deep, authentic, heartfelt, man-of-the-people working-class hero, while Hillary is basically a fake-ass bitch. Washington Times, August 25: “An authentic alternative to Hillary Clinton”; New York Post, September 14: “While Team Hillary talks ‘authenticity’ Biden just does it”; Salon, September 11: “Does Hillary Clinton have an authenticity problem?". That last one argued that “Biden isn’t an outsider, but he feels like one.”
(It's worth noting that Biden had used a folksy man-of-the-people trick to foil the Clintons before. In 1993, Biden helped sink Bill Clinton's nominee to be attorney general, Zoe Baird, who had hired an undocumented immigrant as a nanny. During her Senate confirmation hearing, then-Senator Biden said, "There are single parents with one-fiftieth the income you have. ... They do not violate the law. You are aware of that, aren't you?" Baird withrew days later. The Orlando Sentinel said it was less about populism than "elite Capitol Hill Democrats" who were "reminding a new president that he is mortal.")
As the Biden not-quite-campaign continued, voters were asked to seriously consider whether the viral charm of an old Onion article titled “Shirtless Biden Washes Trans Am In White House Driveway” was actually, now, a qualification for the presidency. Barnicle, for example, used the word “Irish” three times and “tribal” twice in his column arguing for the pure decent realness of Joe Biden; if you want to be authentic, apparently, try on the mannerisms of a working-class white male. Marc Ambinder noted the paradox of the authenticity dilemma, which is that, if Hillary is naturally kind of private and shy, and one must be extroverted to be seen as authentic, then she must pretend to be more extroverted—to be less like her true self in order to be seen as more real. Biden's "realness" was, by contrast, being viewed as his chief asset.
After the initial wave of authenticity tributes passed, Biden had to demonstrate that he was really, really thinking about running to keep people’s attention. In early October, Biden’s representatives met with the Democratic National Committee to go over the complex rules to get on the primary ballots in the states. Biden phoned important Democrats in early voting states . A top Biden adviser “emailed Biden alumni … to keep them pumped up” with a vision of what a Biden 2016 campaign would look like: “I think it's fair to say, knowing him as we all do, that it won't be a scripted affair—after all, it's Joe,” and so on.
But on October 15, a “longtime Biden friend” emailed Politico’s Mike Allen with a bit of backstory. Biden had pulled this before, said the "friend," during the 2004 election: “Biden waited, and waited, and waited, and by the time he announced his decision not to run in August 2003, he declared: ‘You just can't parachute into a presidential campaign.’” The “friend”—the best knifings always come from friends—said he could explain the true reasons why Biden was dithering:
Anyone who knows the man even a little bit understands how much he'd like to be president. The problem is democracy and elections. He wants it by acclamation, and can't understand why the American people have not risen up as one to insist he take the job, as he surely is the most qualified and talented by far.
Was this the real real Biden? Someone who (not too terribly unlike other politicians) needs the American people to loudly and repeatedly declare their true love? The fact that it was too late to actually run was beside the point, the very good "friend" said: "Biden has executed his game plan, one that heightens his profile and stature. It's flattering to hear how much the country needs you to get in the race.”
When Biden announced that he would not get in after all, he again cited concern for his family as the reason. They'd had to go through the grieving process for his son, he said, and that period couldn’t be cut short even if election deadlines loomed. The family is ready now, he said, but it’s too late.
Whatever his true mission was, the vice president was absolutely successful at getting America’s punditocracy to say that while Clinton might be the one with a shot at being president, he is at least a better person than she is. His legacy will be realness.